(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 13 September)
An alternative title for Jonathan Maitland’s slice of almost-recent history might be, as he expresses it in his programme note, The Mouse That Roared. The play’s actual title is of course Dead Sheep, a reference to Dennis Healey’s comment that being attacked in the Commons by Geoffrey Howe was like being “savaged by a dead sheep”.
After a successful London season, director Ian Talbot is taking his production on a national tour until December. The plot is simple enough; it revoves around the professional relationship between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Steve Nallon) and her former Foreign Secretary, later Chancellor of the Exchequer, Howe (Paul Bradley). The third important character – who in many ways is shown as the catalyst for the dénouement – is Elspeth Howe (Carol Royle), an independent woman but also one concerned to support her husband.
The other characters are various Government advisors, MPs and assorted Ministers. Between them they provide some brilliant character studies – Graham Seed’s Ian Gow, Chrstopher Villiers’ Alan Clark and John Wark’s television interviewer stand out here. Morgan Large’s set is dominated by the Cabinet photograph, that famous one where dark-suited men are minimised by blue-clad Thatcher, the queen bee of that particular hive.
While Royle is very good as Elspeth Howe, both when she’s acting (as she herself admits) almost like Lady Macbeth screwing her husband up to the murder of Duncan and in her waspish exchanges with the Prime Minister during distinctly awkward social events at 10 Downing Street, the focus inevitably falls on the protagonist and antagonist in this 20th century variation on Greek tragedy.
As Thatcher, Nallon gives us a spot-on impersonation, from vocal mannerisms to shoe-pinching gait and the hand-shakes offered with the head vulture-looming but the torso withdrawn, but it remains an impersonation, not a portrayal. The House of Commons scene, where we see her reactions on-screen as well as facing us from the front bench, though is a marvellous piece of theatre.
Bradley has the most difficult rôle of all. He has to give us a credible picture of a man with immense abilities, great integrity and absolutely no charisma or proficiency in self-projection. He builds his portrait of Howe slowly, with meticulous detailing, so that the famouse resignation speech makes its full impact without us ever feeling that this is out of character for the man.
Dead Sheep runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 17 September at the start of a national tour lasting to 3 December. There are matinées on 15 and 17 September.